- For brown kids who can’t speak Spanish
When I asked Raul Zurita what I could do,the spittle of my Spanish trembling off my lips,when I explained to him how I could not even communicatewith my own parents, how I have given my lifeto a language they will never be able to read,
his face stoned into a smirk, his timeworn eyessurveying me like I had scuffed the glimmeroff his shoes. He asked me:¿Por qué quieres escribir en español?Tu mundo, tu realidad está en inglés.
At the time, I didn’t understand his teaching.I stood frozen outside the locked doorof his mouth. He didn’t say much else,but shook my hand like he was rippinga bad poem from his notebook.
Kid, I know you’ve torn through your rhyme books,searching for a way to make your tonguemás cholo and less burb.Kid, no one will ever tell you:English doesn’t belong to white people. [End Page 174]
You will go to school and teachers will give you booksand tell you to find yourself in themthe same way they gave you crayolasin kindergarten and told you to color a pictureof yourself without any brown crayons.
In first grade, I hated speaking Spanish to my momma.I applauded myself for correcting her English.I was the only one of her three childrenwho didn’t need to attend an ESL class.My parents were so proud.
We spent years having conversationsneither of us could understand.Kid, I know you understand the distancethat can turn your own motherinto a foreign country
When your four-year-old cousins correctyour Spanish, you will feel unsteadyas an infant learning to walk.
The first step is not giving up.
Fall in love with the way a room full of Latin womensuena como una luna llena de pájaros.
Swim with Storni into the storm and swalloweach lyric until you drown en el ritmo de su respiro.
Nod to Temperamento hasta que cada sílaba te dé escalofío.¡Baila a Shakira y Selena!
When your homeboys mock you for speaking white-washed,don’t let them reduce you to your tongue.You were raised on the same frijoles y queso duro.Blood doesn’t speak any language.Don’t let them make you believethat you can only speak Englishif you’ve swallowed enough colonialismto have your tongue crusted white with its weight. [End Page 175]
In this world, there are over 1,200,000,000 speakers of Englishbut less than half of these look how you would expect them to:We are brown and black, Asian and African.We Chinua Achebe the rhythm, Junot Díaz our diction,and now they’re stealing all our slang.
When the first Africans came to the Americasthrough slavery, they could strip away their familiesand language but they could not beat Africa out of them.
When the slave masters took away their drums,along with their sacred songs of worship,they began patting juba, beating their chest
and legs, taut as drumheads, kicking the flooruntil their heels bled their prayers over the earth.When landlords burned down the Bronx,
leaving schools bankrupt and music programs slashed,we created hip-hop, mimicking the traffic of NYC,its deadly, beautiful energy in our hallways.
When they cut out your tongue, you find another way to pray. [End Page 176]
Willy Palomo is the son of two undocumented immigrants from El Salvador. He is currently working on his MFA in poetry and MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University. His work is published in The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States and elsewhere.